Friday, August 20, 2010

? & the Mysterians: Best Of- Cameo Parkway (1966-67)



Jesus Christ, where do you even begin? In the overarching narrative of American popular music, garage rock amounted to a movement of 45's, generally one and only one allotted to each group of young people banging away from humble territories, building to a Nuggets collective. This all provided the seed of punk rock and, in a broader sense, the divide between Mainstream and Alternative sensibilities that would continue to define the genre for arguably the next three and a half decades (some would say permanently thereafter, but such people have probably not heard Midlake, Mumford & Sons, or Dr. Dog).

Two caveats to this conventional wisdom -- basically valid -- apply: one, a number of these garage bands were fabulously talented, their skills expanding far beyond an explosive one-off. The best band to which the "garage" rubric is typically applied is probably the Remains, occasionally a.k.a. Barry & the Remains, of whom we'll have more discussion in the future I'm certain. Far away in Belfast, Them gave them a strong run for their money and possessed a visceral, gritty audience connection in the absence of the Remains' offbeat wit; I would make the case for ? & the Mysterians as nearly-as-strong competitors. However, one of the two greatest of all American rock bands, the Beach Boys, arguably premiered the garage band phenomenon as a pop commodity, anticipated in a serious fashion only by their surf-rock predecessors. The other great American rock band, the Velvet Underground, is frequently described, not inaccurately, as a garage band whose artistic and literary persuasions breathed new distinction on the most primitive musical ideas imaginable. A simplification, perhaps, but difficult to wholly dispute.

The other point is that while the line drawn in the sand between kids listening to Wire and kids listening to Journey certainly has something to do with the philosophical schism first articulated by the garage bands, the proto-indie notion at least suffers in the sense that many of these bands -- or at least, many of these songs -- were hugely popular. For nearly every outfit that issued brilliant material to no avail (Little Phil & The Nightshadows being my favorite example), there was a Standells, a Blues Magoos, a Them, an Electric Prunes that, however fleetingly, raised this dirty sound into the pop charts, often straight to the top, as in the case of the band that allegedly caused the invention of the term "punk rock": ? & the Mysterians.

Although, contrary to nearly universal belief, "96 Tears" is not the band's only hit -- or even their only sizable hit (they had four top 100 hits, two top 40) -- their fame was certainly assured by it for all eternity. The song is the ideal tool for the person asked to summarize rock & roll in two minutes and thirty seconds, at least for the person with the belief in the power within the primal that I feel is essential in understanding this music. A record almost too brilliant to even completely grasp, "96 Tears" works because its elements are pop heaven, and because of some kind of mysterious magic that binds it all together beautifully. But any given one of its central ingredients could make it memorable: the appallingly dirty production (recorded someplace out of the way, ostensibly someone's porch, in Michigan); the grinding bass with a heavy, elephantine monster march; the meaty, whirly organ lick that unexpectedly twists into an infectious spy-movie dance step then (at the bridge) into a circus-dirge; and Question Mark's vocals, aggressive but inward, pissed-off but abstract and evasive, his lyrics obliquely bitter, surreal but somehow expressive of petty romantic-kissoff truths. However the number 96 was arrived at (the band claims they simply transposed "69"), ? has clearly decided with great unwavering confidence that it is precisely how many tears you will cry. And how about that rant about being "up on top," standard enough relationship fare (see "I'm Looking Through You," issued months earlier), that quickly disintegrates into a bizarre debate about whether you or he is actually "on top" or "looking up" or what the fuck ever, it's free-associative nonsense that is perfectly ingratiating and defines the Rock Weird for years to come. These idiosyncracies are not on the intellectual level of Ray Davies', Brian Wilson's, or Lou Reed's, but they have equal or greater weight in the way that semi-pop music would unfold in decades to come.

Sorry to indulge here, but my relationship with "96 Tears" is a big deal to me, and this seems as nice a place as any to detail it. I initially heard the song the same place I heard my second favorite song ("Tighten Up"): on an odd 5-LP set from Warner Special Products called Solid Gold Party Rock, evidently sold on TV in the early '80s, consisting of about fifty #1 hits from the 1960s. My parents bought a copy at a garage sale and it became a major musical education for me, leading me to a number of artists whose work would change my landscape forever. I don't love everything in the package, which I still own, but I love a staggering amount of it. "96 Tears" was one of the songs my parents didn't seem overly keen on, and I don't remember paying it all that much attention beyond a cursory play or two before skipping on to the Shirelles or the Everly Brothers. I took enough notice, though, that about ten years later, it made me almost miss my turnoff when I heard it on an oldies station in the car. There was that organ hook and its bizarre, almost subliminally engaging hook five seconds in; it was one of Those Moments when you feel as though an alien force has seized you, and the impulse to move and shake in inhuman ways is almost overpowering.

I wouldn't get the opportunity for five years. But the song instantly became an object of fascination, downloaded from whatever file-sharing program was prevalent at the time. (No CD containing the original track was even in print in mid-2003.) I remembered one appearance by ? & the Mysterians in the years between my Solid Gold Party Rock acquisition and my oldies-radio reappraisal: a mocking story on the band by The Daily Show with Craig Kilborne in 1997, reporting on a reunion show with sarcasm-drenched condescension, the writers and staff jealous of how much funnier Question Mark was than they. The report involved his repeated claims that he is a Martian and that he once lived among dinosaurs (I forget whether these two things are connected). It's an interesting sideline that Sun Ra was rarely badgered for his similar statements about alien origins, but had he entered their radar, I'm sure that would've been different. The lesson is still that to the extent that the mainstream entertainment world even bothers paying attention to creative pop music, it is always with the same loathsome cluelessness.

I attempted to buy the Mysterians' live CD from that same reunion tour, Do You Feel It, Baby!?, which garnered excellent reviews. It was out of stock everywhere and I never did track it down. Meanwhile, despite the fact that it was a very famous song that everyone in my sphere probably already knew, I began insisting that "96 Tears" had to be on every mix CD I put together. I discovered that at least two bands I had grown to love in intervening years -- Suicide and Tom Tom Club -- constantly ran back to it as a centerpiece of live jams, confirming what I suspected about its universal durability. Better yet, I learned that a coworker at the time had raised hellfire playing organ at church in the '60s by launching into "96 Tears" and surely inspiring a Rev. Lovejoy-esque tirade (only with a far better song).

And on a September night in 2008, I finally let go of the pent-up energy that began to build when I rediscovered "96 Tears" in my car half a decade earlier. Pensive and out-of-place, I'd ventured downtown because I had heard that a DJ was playing music I would like. He was, and we'd already become friends by the end of the night, but I was content to sit quietly at the Ms. Pac-Man machine having sodas while he played brilliant garage punk classics and made the youth dance like no time had passed from 1965 to now. When he played this song, though, I couldn't stay in my seat anymore, and I the perpetually shelled and awkward did some weird shit that maybe resembled dancing, I don't know, who cared, and the jubilance took its hold. Sure, it was the environment the DJ laid down that provided that escape, but ? & the Mysterians had their crucial role as well.

It again is certainly no big deal to anyone else, but this all came full circle in May of this year, when I was shopping for 45's at a thrift store with that same DJ. Rifling through box after box, I already had a pile set aside when he came around the corner and held up a treasure: a well-worn but still decently preserved "96 Tears" single. Not a rarity by any means, but it's my favorite song and I'd always wanted one, and hadn't run across it in any shop before. For 25 cents it was mine; stunningly enough, a little sibilance notwithstanding, it sounds glorious, exploding with the ambience of that small-time Michigan recording date. The disc sounds larger than life (and the quarter pricetag manages to quietly justify the fortysomething bucks I spent on a Candix "Surfin'" earlier this year).

[Image from Boss Tracks.]

Cameo-Parkway was not an obscure label by any means; though their roster was small, they issued what Billboard alleges is the most-played song of the twentieth century, Chubby Checker's "The Twist." Not a major player, but no backwoods operation. Still, the typeface on the single looks distinctly homemade, creepily thin and faint. Partially because of Cameo's generic label design, it comes off more like an acetate than a stock single, but this air of the unfamiliar somehow makes it feel more sacred. That "forbidden" flavor is in one respect not a coincidence: Like "The Twist" and nearly every other song released on the label, "96 Tears" has been next to impossible to find on compact disc until very recently, as a result of the late Allen Klein's, um, charitable buyout of the label's back catalog in the late '60s. If you owned "96 Tears" on CD before 2005, it was very likely a lesser remake, and if not that then certainly a pirated copy.

That all changed with Abkco's 2005 release (only in Canada, alas, but readily imported elsewhere) of this generous compilation, one in a line that included a disc for each of Cameo-Parkway's other major acts -- Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, Bobby Rydell, etc. (As an aside, I have the Chubby Checker entry and it's certainly worth your while.) "Generous" is really an understatement, as the disc contains everything of significance recorded by ? & the Mysterians in the '60s, including both of their long-lost LPs for Cameo-Parkway (96 Tears and Action) in their entirety, plus the sole non-album single, "Do Something to Me" b/w "Love Me Baby," and a couple of outtakes. The original recording of "96 Tears" alone would make this an essential disc for the garage band devotee, but this is no simplistic filler job. The contents are consistently enjoyable and, at times, brilliant; the instances of the latter are not limited to "96 Tears."

We open with the band's second biggest hit, the Stonesish "I Need Somebody," which builds on another feverish organ to a massive groove that would recall the Animals if not for its relentless cheeriness and goofily incongruous "Mary Had a Little Lamb" bridge. On this and the next five cuts, we're treated to garage band expertise, helped along in large part by the Mysterians' rhythm section, which is incredible, approaching bangers and filler with equal aplomb until everything sounds crucial. Question Mark -- real name Rudy Martinez -- drips with charisma that recalls alternately Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Mick Jagger. If anything might push this group over the Remains, not that I'm suggesting such a thing is possible, it's the sheer dynamism of their frontman.

There are pleasures on the first few tracks to follow, sure, dig the guitar hook and Martinez's sexual weight on "Stormy Monday" for starters, but things don't really heat up until number seven, a criminally, viciously sick jam called "'8' Teen." Here's your first suggestion that the pool from which "96 Tears" was drawn was less finite than you might expect. The ingredients are all there, particularly the weirdness, but this is no mere clone of the hit; it has drama, personality, bite all its own. It's also enough of a breathlessly fast stomper that it could outpace the Blues Magoos at their horniest, if not the Animals. That's followed swiftly by the delightful "Don't Tease Me," boasting the most ominous Carnival of Souls organ in the package, and presented here in unnerving stereo. You also get the obligatory appearance of the "96 Tears" b-side, "Midnight Hour," another Howlin' Wolf-via-British Invasion clone tune that does manage to stand out amongst the first-LP songs.

About halfway through the disc, "96 Tears" arrives and carries with it a storm of garage-rock masterpieces. First there's the proto-psychedelic "Girl (You Captivate Me)," advance-slaughtering Jim Morrison's sex poetry and preening both; the band sounds so accomplished here it's heartbreaking that no one's heard the song. There's seriously no reason a world that celebrates the Velvet Underground cannot hear the elegance and innovation of this murky, shaking piece. Then: a 180-degree turn into a sarcastic reprise of the "96 Tears" intro before an even more demented backing track behind an even more dementedly straightforward lyric which I think is about a threesome (?) for the deserved classic "Can't Get Enough of You Baby," covered in an innocuous toothless grin by teenyboppers Smash Mouth in the late '90s. Martinez continues to dazzle with his energy and theatrics; the band still sounds like they believe they're the only ones making music like this, and for the minutes while they're playing, their belief in this makes it so. Then, the promise of "Stormy Monday" is at last fulfilled by the Eric Burdon mashup "Got To," which sees the Mysterians tackling balladry and funk simultaneously to grand effect; the highlight is a lengthy spoken word treatise by Martinez about losing the one you can't have that has enough weirdly directed passion and wide-eyed insistence (here upon dispensing extraordinarily bad advice, more or less an advocation of stalking) to evoke memories of Marvin Gaye's speeches between songs at his live shows, which often had as much soul as the tunes.

The final ten tracks of the Cameo-Parkway disc witness an intriguing transition for ? & the Mysterians. From their maximum R&B ambitions early on, Martinez doing some crazy shit halfway between Burdon and James Brown by the climax, the gear shifts into the rise of The Pop Impulse. Rather than leveling off the vitality, this mostly proves the band amazingly capable of a rich, clean, but still garage-infected bubblegum sound. "I'll Be Back," as obscure as anything here, sounds like it could have been a massive radio hit. The organ remains as loud and mysterious as ever, but it now takes on candyfloss melodies while Martinez attains a sort of gentle croon. Not only are they convincing, the songs they work with are excellent. Good as "I'll Be Back" is, the real pop achievements are "Hangin' on a String" (which sounds for all the world like a cover of some famous hit, but I can't find any record of such a thing existing), as tight as the band ever sounded, the drum bursts perfectly timed with the organ dance and a vocal melody seemingly engineered for permanent sealed-shut entrance into the listener's head, and "Do Something to Me," predating and bettering Tommy James' legendary hit version of the same song.

By this point, they're well above their peers' abilities and are nearing the godlike passion and professionalism of a band like the Box Tops, managing in fleeting bursts to match that peerless outfit's fusion of commercial genius with unfiltered feeling. The band is finally practically unrecognizable as the "96 Tears" Mysterians, but it's the mark of evolution, not regression; more assured than ever, they are as splendidly infectious in their pop-bliss period as in their nasty garage days, and what's the difference? It's all glorious dance music, isn't it? The b-side, "Love Me Baby (Cherry July)," is pretty dandy as well.

So why weren't these hits? You could ask the same question of hundreds of songs in the late '60s and blame an overcrowded marketplace of smart pop music, but in fact, in the case of ? & the Mysterians, there may be a specific event to which we can point. Cameo-Parkway went bellyup and ended up in the possession of Allen Klein, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time for ? & the Mysterians; their second album had just been released. It's likely that none of its excellent singles were ever pushed properly, while Klein set about his merry way writing off the purchase and preparing for bigger fish.

Thankfully, the ending has mostly been a happy one for ? & the Mysterians. They're routinely honored for their place in rock & roll history, as forefathers of punk and as possibly the very first Latino rock band to achieve success on a national scale. They still play live, still pull in crowds, and Martinez says they have every intention to be playing "96 Tears" in 8,000 years. I kind of feel like they could pull that off. I know for sure that we'll still need to hear the song then. Hopefully we'll get an encore of "Got To."

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